I don’t normally say this before film reviews, but this is not the kind of film you want spoiled. Reading everything I’m going to put here will likely undermine your own experience of the film. Now, on with the review:
I’m Thinking of Ending Things might be one of the saddest films I’ve seen. It follows the story of a man named Jake (Jesse Plemons) through from the start of his day to the end, whereupon he commits suicide. But it’s not quite as simple as watching a man get more broken down or depressed as, say, a film like Joker (2019). No, this film is incredibly abstract and meta but never in a “look how cool our meta-movie is” kind of way, more in a “can I trust anything that’s being shown to me?” kind of way.
And the answer is no. You really can’t trust most of anything that’s on screen. The reason the film is so abstract is that it’s set entirely within the imagination of Jake. Everything you see and hear is nothing more than a thought or fantasy he is daydreaming about inside his own mind. This means this story is probably told by one of the most unreliable narrators in film, but it also means there’s lots of different ways to interpret what is happening. So if you took away something different from a scene than I, then I wouldn’t be surprised. I had to watch this film a good three times before I felt comfortable that what I had to say about it was in line with what the director, Charlie Kaufman, was going for.
This fantasy Jake’s having involves a younger version of himself taking his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) to visit his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). Throughout the film her name changes from Lucy to Louise, to Louisa and so on because Jake doesn’t have a girlfriend in real life. He’s just made this woman up on a whim to fantasise about a better life. So too does her occupation change from being a poet to a painter, to a physicist and to a film critic. At first the occupations he imagines her to have are all things that he is interested in and this is the first hint we get that this takes place in his own mind; Everything anyone ever talks about are things directly tied to Jake’s own knowledge and interests. Afterall, he can’t fantasise about being knowledgeable and interested in his girlfriend’s work if she has an occupation he knows little about. Although when she does become a physicist and a doctor, two things he is unfamiliar with, it’s when he visits his parents. He wants them to think he has found someone worthy of being with and so he imagines her to have a prestigious type of job. One thing I like is that when she has jobs he is familiar with they talk at extremely long length about theories and ideas tied to it, but when he is just assigning her a job that will impress his parents it’s normally just so they can discuss how society abandons the elderly.
This is where things get scary and depressing. Time goes all weird. Jake doesn’t like being in his parent’s house and he pushes his imaginary girlfriend through all the stages he remembers of his parents. Through how they never understood his needs when he was young, to when they got old and he needed to look after them and watch them die all by himself. From there, things spiral and the film becomes less and less structured as Jake’s imagination tries to escape the house, which leads to his eventual decision to kill himself.
But what about the title “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”? Well it has two meanings; that Jake wants to end his life and that his imaginary girlfriend wants to break up with him. And that’s why this film is so sad. We’re watching a movie about a man so depressed that his own imaginary girlfriend wants to leave him – a girl he has made up and, in his own mind, who he can imagine behaving however he’d like her to. At first she can’t put her finger on why she wants to end things – and of course, that also doubles as Jake not knowing why he wants to die – but as the film loses traditional structure towards the end, it also ironically becomes more concrete with it’s message as to why Jake wants to die. He’s an old man now. He talks a lot about the elderly being forgotten after leaving his parents and how he feels invisible to all but the people who make fun of him at work. He works in a school as a janitor, and remarks about how depressing it is to him to see kids he recognised as theatre performers at the school play now working behind lousy cash registers.
At this stage of the film, the image of his younger self is essentially arguing all the reasons to do it, while his imaginary girlfriend is giving all the reasons why not to. Of course, when you consider every thought and word his girlfriend has is one that he (the real Jake) has had then you realise he’s just debating all this with himself. Ultimately talking himself into suicide.
He tries to distract himself multiple times. Whenever his girlfriend begins to think or speak the phrase “I’m thinking of ending things” Jake will either strike up an entirely new, spontaneous conversation or they will arrive at a new location. All this just so Jake doesn’t have to address the negative thoughts.
Often he’ll start talking about things he enjoys to get his mind off of it – film criticism, poetry and philosophy mostly. But whereas these things start as good distractions, normally Jake ends up belittling himself with his own beliefs. He’ll start talking about a film he likes and his girlfriend will start harshly criticising it. He’ll over analyse his own thoughts – once meant to keep an ounce of positivity flowing through him – to a point where he can’t enjoy himself thinking about them anymore.
Throughout the movie, we get glimpses of this Janitor. An old man. This is the real Jake, the man who is imagining the other 99% of this film. Eventually, this true version of himself confronts the truth about his imaginary girlfriend; that he saw her once at a bar when he was young, never spoke to her or approached her and merely looked. He took her pretty face in his mind and has just been imagining what she might be like this whole movie, but that he has also devalued her by pushing all of his own interests and thoughts into her. He can’t even enjoy his own fantasy.
The film ends with old Jake killing himself by intentionally getting hypothermia in his car.
This is a pretty depressing watch yes, but it’s very engaging and thought-provoking. Every time I watch it I catch a little detail that helps me understand more of what Jake is thinking. But due to the abstract and meta nature, it’s certainly not easy to sit through. If you want to relax and watch a movie, this is not the film to do that with. 90% of this movie is just dialogue and a good 60% of it is close-ups in a car. But because the writing is so good and revealing, I find that it works. It may take multiple watches to come to an understanding about the movie; on my first watch I only understood that Jake was the Janitor all along, but nothing else really, only to get the rest of the plot on my second watch and going back a third time to see if I missed any details.
I would recommend this movie, absolutely. But you have to be in the mood for it, and willing to think and engage with it on it’s own terms. If you go in and try taking anything at face value, you’ll likely leave with no idea of what’s happening, just like I did on my first watch. But hopefully it engages you enough to make you want to learn more about it. Definitely an arty film. Not traditional at all. And better off for it.
I remember reading the book. Haven’t seen this yet but will look out for it.
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I haven’t read the book, but I would recommend this. Think it’s only on Netflix though as an exclusive, so wouldn’t count on catching it on TV.